Japanese pheasants are the national bird of Japan, because they are brave, lovable and tasty. They are the only bird species in the world that is both a national bird and a game bird. Eating them is in fact the Japanese way of preserving the species. Find out about one of the most likable and Kawaii animals of nature, the Japanese pheasant.
Show host Kyota Ko explains the relationship between Japanese people and the Japanese pheasant in this amusing podcast episode.
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese and this podcast episode is going to be about yet another weird fact about Japan and the cultural background behind it. We’re going to talk about Japan’s national bird – the Japanese pheasant.
Like the bald eagle of the US and Kiwi of New Zealand, national birds can be a very iconic symbol of the country. But for Japan, the national bird is rather a very tasty source of protein. It’s true! Japanese pheasants are the only kind of bird in the world that is designated both as a national bird and a game bird. To be precise, male pheasants are legally a target of hunting. Why? Because they taste good. Like, very good.
So today, I’d like to share with you Japan’s love towards our tasty and kawaii national bird. My name is Kyota Ko.
First of all, what does a Japanese pheasant look like? Podcasts deliver only audio and no visuals, but that’s ok. It’s not a problem because I can easily put an image of a Japanese pheasant in your mind right now just with a description. Imagine a rooster with the body of a peacock and you’re already like 80% close to picturing a male Japanese pheasant. It’s a very colorful photogenic bird with an elegant color palette. There are a few other subspecies of pheasants with different color combinations and they are all very beautiful. If you’re interested, you can Google “Green pheasant” – that is the Japanese pheasant, and also Google “golden pheasant” – that is another subspecies that lives in China.
So the Japanese pheasant became our national bird in 1947. Japan had lost to the US in WWII by 1945 and at that time Japan was under the supervision of the US. Dr. Oliver Austin Jr. an expert in the study of birds, instructed the Japanese government to be more protective of wild birds and as a part of the initiative, the bird-studies society of Japan was asked to select a species as the national bird. And the green pheasant was chosen.
Several reasons were given for the decision, like it’s an indigenous species of Japan, it doesn’t migrate across countries – it’s seen everywhere in Japan all year except in Hokkaido so many Japanese people back then knew what it looked like and that it looked absolutely gorgeous.
But if you ask Japanese people what their national bird is, there’s a great chance they won’t know, and if you ask them to take a guess, there’s a great chance they will not come up with the Japanese pheasant. Japanese pheasants are called キジ in Japanese by the way. There’s a great chance their guess will be the Japanese crane. The reason will be obvious if you Google a photo of a Japanese crane. It’s basically the Japanese flag made into a bird. The red forehead and its white feathers match the colors of our flag perfectly.
So when you give away the answer to Japanese people, some of their responses will likely be: “Aaaah pheasants. OK, sure. They taste good.” I live in Tokyo and pheasants aren’t seen in the city, but people living in rural areas seem to know that pheasants are game birds and some of them have eaten them and found out that they are a delicacy. Many people claim that pheasant meat is actually tastier than many brands of chicken. It has more protein and less fat. And unlike other wild animals, they don’t have a distinct smell or taste that some people wouldn’t really fancy.
In Tokyo, you can find a few restaurants where pheasant hot pots are served. If you’re interested in trying, you may have to ask a local friend to take you there because some restaurants ask you to make a reservation beforehand. They’re wild animals so… those restaurants will need to make sure a pheasant gets to their kitchen. It’s not overwhelmingly pricey but it won’t be a cheap meal. But many Japanese people who live in the city have never tried pheasants so I think your local friends will be interested in trying themselves.
Now Japanese pheasants are fun creatures to learn about. There are certain traits that make them likable and I think it’s their likability that partially determined their being chosen to be the national bird. They have that trait some popular kawaii Japanese characters carry. They look harmless and imperfect but in fact they are brave and incredibly strong, like Pikachu of Pokémon and Kirby of Nintendo – that’s my son’s favorite.
First of all, male pheasants are heroic dads. They protect their families from threats. Whenever a predator like a snake comes near home, they fight fiercely. There are reports of daddy pheasants pecking at their enemies to death and other daddies luring snakes away from their nests by crying out loud, basically making a scene so that the snake will get distracted.
There’s a folk tale that literally all Japanese people – 100% of us – can recite. The story is called Momotaro. It’s basically a story of a boy who was born from a gigantic peach. Momo is the Japanese for peach and Taro used to be a common Japanese name for boys, so put them together and you get Momotaro, or Peach Boy. I think when it’s in English it has the same effect as Antman. It’s not the coolest name a hero could get to be called.
After growing up to be a strong young man, Momotaro hears about these big bad demons who come to his village and rob from the villagers. So he decides to go to their hideout and beat the daylights out of them and along the way, he recruits a dog, monkey and a pheasant. They get to the hideout and the crew fights fiercely. The dog bites on the demons’ legs the monkey scratches their faces – up till here, there are no big surprises in how they fight and therefore the story is still cute.
But the pheasant pecks at the demons’ eyeballs, causing severe and real damage! Out of all the parts of the enemy’s body, the pheasant is choosing where his attack will be taken seriously. The boss of the demons is then thrown into the air by Momotaro, they apologize for stealing from the village and give what they took back, Momotaro forgives, takes back his loot to the villagers and they live happily ever after is how the story ends, but we shouldn’t overlook how determined the pheasant was to hurt the demons.
As a matter of fact, male Japanese pheasants are fearless especially during the reproductive season. They would throw kicks and pecks at anything that comes near their territories. But on Youtube videos you’ll only see them being either timid or friendly in front of the camera.
There is a best seller book series about animal facts in Japan. It’s called ざんねんないきもの事典, which can be translated to The Encyclopedia of disappointing animals. It says things like the brain of an ostrich is smaller than its eyeball. It basically gives all these sad truths. And this book series has sold over 3.5 million copies, and I’m bringing this up because Japanese people love creatures with small flaws. It’s part of the concept of Kawaii. And yes, Japanese pheasants totally have that lovable small, sad flaw.
Apart from the basics like it’s not really good at flying despite being a bird, my favorite is Male pheasants really, really suck at hiding. When they sense a human being approaching. They hide in a bush, but they usually have either their head or their butt sticking out. When you have a walk in the Japanese countryside, chances are you will spot a round butt with a long tail sticking out from a bush, waiting for you to pass, absolutely certain that it is fully undercover.
They suck at hide-and-seek so bad that there is even a proverb that goes 頭隠して尻隠さず or in English, It hid its head but forgot about its butt. You use it whenever you come home to find your child awkwardly standing and claiming it wasn’t him that took your chocolate ice cream in the fridge, but he totally has chocolate around his lips.
Female pheasants look nothing like their male counterparts. Their feathers are the color of dry grass and they blend well in the environment. This helps to protect their eggs and children because their way of dealing with predators is by sitting still. It’s almost impossible to spot them from a distance. There are stories of female Japanese pheasants being found after wild fire sitting on their eggs with burnt feathers.
There are other species of birds in the world that will probably go that far to protect their offspring, but at least to the eyes of bird researchers in the mid-20th century, female pheasants represented the love mothers have or should have towards their children. It is illegal to hunt female Japanese pheasants – because the intent of choosing a national bird was to preserve bird life. So it is weird that Japanese pheasants are both the national bird and a game bird, but again nobody wants them to go extinct.
So anyway, Japanese pheasants have been hunted and eaten for a long time. They live close to humanity and they are recognized for being brave, being lovable, and tasting great. That is my point today.
I personally think all this says something about Japanese culture. We study and try to preserve nature because we appreciate it, but at the same time we happily consume products of nature because things in nature just taste so good. Figuring out the best way to cook a mushroom, a plant, or a pheasant is our way to feel and show appreciation towards Mother Nature. If a species of vegetation or animal tastes so good, you don’t want them to go extinct. So we make an effort to preserve them. So that we can keep eating them. I know this may sound weird, but I think that is our take on the topic of love towards Earth.
If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese thought, culture and history, please check out my blog The Metro-classic Japanese. You should be able to find it if you Google “Metro-classic Japanese.” And try pheasant hot pot if you have a chance. See you in the next podcast episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。